From the far end of the pier, the newest addition to Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park seemed, as it hung suspended from the crane of a tug barge, like an odd-shaped child’s toy dredged out of the bay waters being held up and examined by a curious beachcomber.
It was only when you realized that the little figures scuttling on the dock below it are not sandcrabs but construction workers that you began to realize the enormous scale of the Whirley Crane, a revolving boxcar sitting on massive legs as tall as a 10-story building.
The numbers in the handout given to press at the dock entrance—Weight: 229,000 pounds. Boom length: 110 feet. Lifting capacity: 166,000 pounds—didn’t fully convey the size of the machine towering above the onlookers.
The Whirley Crane got its name not because of the speed of its movement—it probably moved carefully and deliberately because a single error could cost several lives—but because the crane could turn a full 360 degrees, thus allowing the boom to achieve a speed of operation as it went about several tasks.
Sixty years ago, workers—many of them women—used to sit in the turret at the top of the Whirley Crane, operating the controls that caused the 110 foot boom to lift and assemble and put into place the massive sheets of iron that eventually became the cruisers and battleships that sailed out into the Pacific and helped win the naval war for the United States.
Since then, the crane has sat rusting and isolated and all but forgotten on a pier on the Richmond docks. The crane was eventually donated to the City of Richmond by its owner, the Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation, after a coalition of Rosie the Riveter National Park organizers came up with the idea that the crane would be a valuable addition to the park.
On Friday of last week a handful of female former shipyard workers—now in their 80s and 90s—joined with Naval personnel, Richmond city officials and workers, National Park Service officers, construction workers, and various dignitaries to watch one of the last remaining Whirley Cranes take the short but logistically complicated barge ride down the harbor waters from Shipyard Number 1 and get placed in a site for permanent viewing at Richmond’s Shipyard No. 3 next to the docked SS Red Oak Victory, one of the last of those World War II era warships.
While Friday’s ceremony was limited to a selected few for safety purposes related to the move and placement of the Whirley Crane, a public installation ceremony is being planned within a few months.
Visitors can already tour the gray-painted Red Oak Victory, which is slowly being restored as a living memorial to the World War II war effort. A Naval officer involved with the restoration project said that while the Red Oak will never put out to sea again, it will eventually be shipshape enough to take limited sails up and down the bay.
Now, in addition to seeing the warship, dockside visitors will also be able to walk past and examine a living example of one of the type of construction cranes that built it and, therefore, begin to get a small look back into an era that seems to dwarf all present human accomplishment.
A National Park spokesperson said that the Whirley Crane “appears to be operational,” and that if it is, visitors may one day be able to see the turret revolve its full 360 degrees as it did during the shipbuilding years.
Rosie the Riveter Trust president and Richmond City Councilmember Tom Butt, who was out of town Friday, said in a statement that the installation was “an unprecedented collaboration to save the Whirley Crane for posterity, to remind us of the single-minded and Herculean effort the home front generation made over 60 years ago.”